I was driving east along Highway 198 near Hanford in the Central Valley, marveling at the snowcapped Sierra looming against the horizon, when I spotted the billboard.
It was the giant face of a very worried-looking Republican U.S. Rep. Devin Nunes next to the words “Fake farmer, real manure.”
Peering from the corner of the billboard was the much smaller face of an alarmed cow, a not-so-subtle reference to @DevinCow, the Twitter account that mocks Nunes for calling himself a farmer.
The billboard, close to Nunes’ hometown, is perfectly placed to drive him crazy.
Well, crazier, if you consider that the ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee has already sued a fake cow, all of Twitter, an organic farmer, his local newspaper, a political strategist, Esquire and CNN.
I came to Nunes Country this week to talk to folks about their representative, an ardent defender of President Trump who denigrates Democrats, the free press, the impeachment committees and anyone else who gets in Trump’s way. The 22nd Congressional District spans parts of Fresno and Tulare counties. In 2016, Trump won the district by 8.5 percentage points, but Democrats are making inroads. In 2018, Nunes’ margin of victory — 5 points — was his slimmest ever.
I would love to talk to Nunes, but he does not speak with reporters from most mainstream news organizations. “To be perfectly clear,” Nunes told a CNN reporter as he left one of the impeachment hearings, “I don’t acknowledge any questions from you in this lifetime or the next lifetime. I don’t acknowledge any question from you ever.”
Instead, he appears frequently on Fox News and on local radio station KMJ here in the Valley with his friend, the conservative talk show host Ray Appleton.
My first stop Wednesday was Sweet Home Ranch in Dinuba. Organic stone fruit farmer Paul Buxman was sued in 2018 by Nunes after challenging Nunes’ right to call himself a farmer on the ballot. (A judge ruled Nunes could call himself a farmer; his lawsuit against Buxman was later dropped.)
After serving me a slice of homemade pizza, Buxman, 72, took me into his orchard, where he grows flawless persimmons the size of grapefruits. It was here, on this land, that Nunes came for a photo op when he first ran for Congress, in 2002.
Buxman’s change of heart toward Nunes has caused ripples in his family.
“My brother is a Republican,” Buxman told me. “I apologized to him if he was embarrassed when I complained to the election board. But calling yourself a farmer is an unfair leg up in a farming community if you aren’t one. My brother said: ‘I’m not embarrassed at all. Devin is not the man we elected. Maybe this will turn him around.’”
Since then, Nunes, who grew up on a dairy farm, has reported in financial disclosures that he owns a small stake ($15,000) in a farm and has become even more lawsuit-happy.
I left Dinuba and drove up to Fresno to see the Democrat who came tantalizingly close to unseating Nunes in 2018.
Andrew Janz is an assistant district attorney who prosecutes violent criminals. He is now running for mayor of California’s fifth-largest city against Fresno’s former police chief, Jerry Dyer.
Janz, 36, who is about to become a first-time dad, agreed to meet me before a tour of Kaiser’s maternity ward. We met outside the hospital, then spent the next 15 minutes trotting down hallways and taking elevators to find his wife, Heather, and a maddeningly well-hidden conference room. When we finally found it, Janz invited me to stay for the tour, but I didn’t want to relive the childbirth experience. We talked later in the hospital cafeteria.
“Devin started out as a well-liked moderate,” he said. “But now he falls for conspiracy theory after conspiracy theory. People want their representatives to come home, but he’s really ignored our community. You are more likely to be sued by Devin than see him at a town hall.”
(Nunes has not held an open town hall for about 10 years.)
In October, after Janz announced he’d started a PAC to raise money for the still-anonymous Twitter cow’s defense fund, Nunes’ lawyer sent a letter accusing Janz of “coordinating, instigating, aiding and abetting” @DevinCow “in the malicious harassment, cyberbullying, stalking and defamation of Mr. Nunes.”
The thing about mocking public figures is, the more they resist, the worse the mocking gets.
It’s a corollary of the Streisand effect. With Nunes, though, there seems to be a twist: The more he gets mocked, the more he sues. The more he sues, the more money he raises.
“You are aware that you could be sued for writing this story,” Janz told me.
On Thursday morning, I visited Reedley, a small farming town where my father was born. Christmas music was playing from speakers along G Street, the main drag. I popped my head into a barber shop, a real estate brokerage and a beauty salon.
The barber, Eddie Vasquez, looks like Elvis Presley, worships Elvis Presley and has turned his shop into a shrine to the King of Rock and Roll. He is not interested in politics, and pointed me down the street.
In the brokerage office, I met Carol Isaak and Beatrice Esparza. Both are Republicans and big supporters of both Nunes and Trump.
“Nunes handled himself professionally,” said Esparza, 57, who watched the impeachment hearings. “That Schiff guy is ridiculous.”
Isaak, 79, who was off to a Beach Boys concert that evening, said Nunes has been a good representative. “I’m perfectly happy with him,” she said. “He’s fought for our water issues — that’s the biggie around here.”
At Spanky’s Salon, owner Ruth Padilla described herself as a passionate local activist, and said she was disgusted with politics at all levels.
“I don’t care if it’s local, state or federal, they will never tell you the truth and there’s always corruption.”
The impeachment of Trump, she said, “is long overdue.”
As for Nunes, she said: “Devin only comes here when he’s running. ‘I’m here! Vote for me!’ Then we never hear from him again.”
If she really wants his attention, I suppose, she could always put up a billboard.